Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue 6/1/2004 11:36 PM
Random Thought: On Lying, Cheating, and Plagarism

One Friday, I handed back the students' weekly journals. One student came up to me asking, "What does this 'AAO' in the margin mean?"

"'All At Once.' It means you made all your entries at the same time."

"No, I didn't"

"Didn't you?"


"You didn't?"

"Well, there's an entry for each day," she defended herself

"What was the one rule for writing journals?"

"Make an entry each day."

"Did you?"

"Well, I didn't have time and I remembered what I had done."

"But, you found the time at the last minute to date each entry for the whole week as if you had. You remember the 'Words For The Day' I once put on the Board? 'Those that live by the last minute, die by the last minute.' You lied. Twice. You died."

"I didn't lie."

"What do you call it when you say you did something and didn't--twice?"

Ignoring my question, she asked "Do I get an 'F' for this assignment?"

"Not if you learn from you mistake and don't do it again. But, there are always consequences," I softly say with a caring smile. "It will cost you. Donuts for everyone. Monday."

"I don't have the money."

"Donuts...Monday....Fresh yummy ones from Dixie Cream."

"Where's Dixie Cream?"

"Find it."

"I don't have the time."

"Find it....Monday....Donuts."

"I thought you were nice."

"I am. I'm what you call 'tough nice.' Donuts....Monday....Dixie Creams."

She brought them in to the delight of everyone in the class. And the lesson was learned.

Goodness knows that there have been tomes written on the subject of corner-cutting, cheating, and plagarism. The internet is abuzz with this subject lately as if it was a new-found issue. It is an issue that grinds teeth, snarls lip, grimaces cheeks, clenches hands, stomps feet, throws up arms, and shakes heads. Today academics moan about the high-tech internet as a source of plagarism. When I was a student in the late 1950s professors moaned about low-tech "fraternity files." Today, academics moan about e-mailing, surfing, and googling to buy a research paper. When I was a student professors moaned how easily it was to ask around and find a ghost writer on campus. The more things change, the less they change. It's obvious that threats of failure, probation, expulsion for those caught cheating or plagarizing have never been deterents much less preventatives.

Let's face it, the way we put so much weight on grades and honors and awards and recognition and competition, each day in class--and I am not exaggerating--is a fearful, crisis-ridden time "that tries student's souls."

When I catch someone cutting a corner-cutting, lying, cheating, or plagarizing, I don't metamorpose into a snarling Queen of Hearts and scream, "Off with your head." From the incidence of cheating that persists, the threat of such decapitation, or even a public beheading or two doesn't do much good. And, if such a sentence offers any lesson, it is usually a mere "don't get caught next time." It doesn't get to the root moral and ethical core of things. So, I'm not sure that such punishment is the more fitting solution than is seizing the opportunity of a golden "teaching moment" to thoughtfully, systematically, and comprehensively engage a student in order to get that student to break his or her habits that undermine his or her avowed values. So, when I am confronted with what I'll charitably call "corner cutting," I ask myself, "What great lesson lies in this situation? What is the hidden value in this situation? Should I care less or stop caring about this person because he or she is less than perfect and did something wrong?"

This is my toughest test: not to take such things personally, to be a man of unending second chances, to be tough and loving, to help that student see his or her strengths rather than play to his or her weaknesses, to help that student transform his or her energy, to help him or her come back into balance. Students needed my understanding! I have to see their point of view from their vantage point. They have to see mine. I also have to see the hope that is there so that in these difficult times I can seize the opportunity. Contrary to a colleague who disagrees with me, I have "to be bothered." I have to reach out. After all, I have to diligently teach, enforce, advocate, demonstrate, and model personal integrity. It is I, not the students, who has the greatest responsibility to create an ethical culture that nurtures the virtues of integrity, honesty, and fairness.

Now, I agree that there must be consequences, but I'm not sure flunking or expelling will turn straw of anger and blame into gold of apology and responsibility. I firmly believe such a student can be rescued and is worth the try. I've never met a student who isn't a good person and who has convinced him/herself that he or she is doing a bad thing. Self-interest has too often a powerful tendency to incapacitate our ability to live up to our moral principles. The greater the sense of survival the harder we shut the door as if the louder the slam the more valid our positions. We're all ethical in our own eyes whether it is the pursuit of a promotion, a grade, tenure, a grant, a GPA, a whatever. If we understand that, if we understand that we've done that, we can be caringly understanding. With time and effort, with caring, he or she just may see the error of his or her way and be rehabilitated. Casting a student aside or out is the easy way out. It doesn't confront in the flesh the common belief that it's right and proper to do whatever you have to do to get whatever you want, that ethics is irrelevant and integrity is a weakness. It's harder, and more meaningful, to help a student face him/herself, to look in the mirror and see that he or she isn't' as upright he or she pronounces him or herself to be, to confront the fact that he or she is morally and ethically infirmed.

When I confront a student, he or she invariable will say "What about the others?" or "Everyone is doing it" or "It's no big deal" or "I didn't know" or "It didn't hurt anyone."

To the first question, I answer firmly, "We're talking about you, no one else;" to the second rationalization, I say more firmly, "Who cares;" to the third excuse, I say even more firmly, "It sure is;" to the fourth statement, I say still more firmly, "Sure you did. Stop lying. See how it has become a habit;" and to the last explanation, I hit with both barrels, "Sure you are. You're hurting yourself. You're disrespecting yourself which means you'll be disrespectful to anyone. If you're willing to lie to yourself, you're willing to lie to anyone. I know you're better than that. Do you?"

I tell him or her, with a caring concern on my face and a firmness in my voice, that he or she is not responsible for what anyone else does. He or she is only responsible for what he or she does. I tell him or her that there are two kinds of students: ones who lie, cheat, and plagarize; and ones who don't. Whether each student cheats or doesn't cheat depends on the kind of person he or she is. The cheaters find excuses not to be honest; they trivialize character; they are changed by others; they succumb to temptation; they're indifferent or ignorant of the moral implications of what they're doing; at best they know what they're doing is wrong, but do it anyway; they suffer from "moral flabbiness; they're on the path to ethical suicide; they sacrifice their self-respect;" they put convenience above principle. The non-cheaters put principle above convenience; they clinch tightly to their dignity and self-respect; they're enrolled in a "moral fitness" program that tones up their ethics and values;" they find the courage to do what is right because it is the right thing to do; they refuse to be changed by others; they have the strength to resist temptation; they won't let their conscience be suborned by pressure.

"Tell me, do you get any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment by cheating?" I ask.

"I get a better grade," I sometimes hear.

"Yeah, but at a hell of a price. Where's your self-respect? You won't get better and you won't live better a life. I guarantee that it will catch up with you in some way at some time and bite you in your ass."

Then, I hit them square between his or her eyes and ask him or her, "So, tell me, I want you to hear it, I want to hear it, right now, no bs, to my face: which kind of person are you? Are you a good person or a bad person?" I stand in his or her face until the student faces him/herself and I get an answer.

Invariably, I hear, "I'm a good person."

Invariably, I lovingly snap back, "Then, act like a good person!

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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